Romans 13 and Civil Authority
It is surprising how many people use Romans 13:1-4 in a way that reveals that they have assumed things without examining their assumptions, which is a dangerous path to follow. With respect to the verses under consideration, people assume different things about the civil government, yet feel no need to demonstrate the validity of their assumptions or explain how these assumptions might work out in the dusty details of real life.
At the end of Romans chapter 12, Paul exhorted believers not to avenge themselves because vengeance belongs to the Lord (vs.19)-this is far from other worldly or mystical vengeance as we will see later. Paul then begins chapter 13 by underlining the fact that civil authority structures are God's ordering (vs.1-2).
When people assume that it's both possible and necessary to separate the "gospel" from the realm of civil authority and then suggest that believers have no responsibility to shine God's light into the civil realm, they are under the tyranny of unexamined assumptions.
Christ is the Gospel, He is also the Light of the world (John 8:12), He is the Word of God (John 1:1), and believers are to be the light of the world (Matt.5:14). How do they do this? Jesus said that believers are to "live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matt.4:4). Every aspect of God's creation and ordering was made for His glory including all authority-it's "from God" (Rom.13:1), which means it is to be bathed in the light of His truth. Believers are the salt of this world, however if they stop salting, i.e., preserving this world, they will be trodden under the feet of men (Matt.5:13).
The Gospel, or Good News is the Light of the world that touches and shines into every aspect of our being and into every part of creation. The Gospel reveals the glorious message of salvation, but also reveals how we are to glorify the Lord in every area of life on this earth.
When we believe in Christ, we are seated with Him in the heavenly places (Eph.2:6, cf. Eph.1:20; Col.2:12), even while we seek to glorify Him through our activities on the earth. Our reality has a spiritual or heavenly aspect as well as a physical or earthly aspect, which is just like our being; there is a spiritual aspect to who we are as well as a physical aspect. We are never to pit one aspect against the other or exalt one aspect above the other-together they make up our one simultaneous existence whether we are talking about our being or where we dwell. Where we dwell is a heavenly/earthly reality and our being is a spiritual/physical unity-this is revealed to us in Scripture and the just live by faith in this reality.
Since God ordained civil authority it is very much a part of His Kingdom work; it was ordained according to His knowledge and thus we glorify Him by "casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ," (2 Cor.10:5-6). God's Light shines into and onto every aspect of life.
Paul, having dealt with the origin of civil authority, then moved on to talk about what God expects from both the rulers and those who are ruled (Rom.13:3-4). Again, it is surprising that so many people miss the obvious and assume these verses are giving rulers a free hand to do whatever they desire.
Many people point out that Nero was the ruler in Rome at the time Paul wrote Romans, now while this is true, they wrongly assume that Nero was a despot during his entire reign. Their reasoning is that since Paul wrote Romans when Nero was Caesar, that means we are meant to obey even despotic orders. Romans was written during the first five years of Nero's reign, which was, according to the historians, a golden age of good governance, making Nero famous throughout all the provinces. During these early years, Nero was influenced by men like the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. Thus, when Paul wrote Romans 13, Nero's immorality and wickedness had not yet been unleashed-oh the "manifold tyranny of unexamined assumptions."
What appears to be overlooked in vs.3-4 by so many are the meanings of the words 'evil' and 'good.' These terms can only be defined by God. The human race fell into sin because Adam and Eve sought to determine the meanings of these words independently of the Lord (Gen.3). Rulers are meant to reward those who do what is good and punish those who do what is evil. Did God ordain this office in such a way as to allow the office bearer to turn good and evil into their opposites and still be fulfilling God's purpose for the office?
The office and the purpose for the office are one in the ordering of God. To change the purpose of the office into the opposite of its God intended purpose, destroys the office. The Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe quoted these verses to support his tyrannical rule: "God said, no matter what I command, you have to obey me."
God ordained civil government for our good, that is, to encourage us to do what is good and to restrain from doing what is evil-God is glorified when this is done. This authority or office is "God's minister" (vs.4), which this is the same word that is used for a minister in the church-a church officer or deacon. Civil authorities were ordained to be God's ministers or servants, carrying out specific duties for God's glory. To claim that the government still retains its authority even if it denies its moral responsibility to God's definitions of good and evil, is to unleash a destructive monster in our midst. As St. Augustine said in his day, "If justice be taken away, what are governments but great bands of robbers?" (The City of God, 11:4).
Now, returning to where we started at the end of chapter 12, where God said that we are not to avenge ourselves because vengeance belongs to Him, Paul tells us in vs.4 that God's minister "does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil." We do not avenge ourselves because God has ordained an authority system through which He can avenge the evil and protect what is good-this is called justice.
Paul doesn't get into the details of all the workings of civil authorities in this passage because, like with many topics, we have to search the whole of Scripture to complete the picture. Nevertheless, what Paul lays out in these verses are a few inescapable facts, firstly, that God is extremely involved in the realm of civil authority and so believers should also be involved, and secondly, we know how both those in authority and those under authority are expected to act.
Finally, when people within a nation ignore the lawless activities of their rulers, they share in their guilt. The modern church, in fleeing from its God given responsibility in this regard, has reduced Christianity and the Kingdom of God to some small area within the hearts of individuals and has ignored their calling to be salt and light in all of life. They have reduced Christ's commission from discipling the nations as nations (Matthew 28:19), to discipling atomistic individuals severed from their nations. What they have done is reduce Christianity to an internal heart religion, rather than a dynamic faith that touches and influences every part of God's world. Christians have withdrawn the light of God's Word more and more from every area of life (especially with respect to the civil authority), which has caused darkness to increase. This increase of darkness is then held up by these Christians as "proof" that God's light and truth have no rightful place in these areas, resulting in greater withdrawals of light, leading to ever increasing darkness.
Holding onto unexamined assumptions with respect to Romans 13 has played a key part in the disintegration of our country.